Bodies of victims of the St. Francis Dam disaster. Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society

In 1928, more than 400 people were killed in a massive dam break in L.A. County—and the tragedy is barely recognized. That might finally be changing.

Ask most Angelenos what they think of when they hear the name William Mulholland, and they'll probably mention the curvy road in the Hollywood Hills that bears his name.

Mulholland Drive has one of the best 360-degree vistas of the tentacled metropolis: To the southwest, Hollywood, West L.A., and downtown. To the northeast, the San Fernando Valley, and further on, the Santa Clarita Valley—close to the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the 233-mile pipeline that first brought water from the Owens Valley to the thirsty city back in 1913. The Aqueduct was Mulholland's construction, and its payoff—the explosive growth and viability of Los Angeleshas grafted his name onto the prime arteries of the city.

Mulholland's career as czar of the L.A. Department of Water and Power may have peaked with the opening of the aqueduct, but it fell with a tragedy. Mulholland was also the engineer of the St. Francis Dam, a 120-foot high concrete wall that held a reservoir of some 38,000 acre-feet of water. Built snugly into the  San Francisquito Canyon, above a scattering of homes and businesses in the Santa Clarita Valley, the dam was completed in 1926 as a safeguard for aqueduct water.
The St, Francis Dam, by H.T. Stearns of the USGS. (Wikimedia Commons)
On March 12, 1928, just before midnight and mere hours after Mulholland had done a routine walk-through, the dam burst, sending 12 billion gallons of water down the canyon in a 140-foot wave. Within five hours, the flood had traveled 54 miles to the sea, blotting out lives of at least 425 (and perhaps up to 600) people: farmers, ranchers, water department workers, and their families.
It was the second-greatest natural catastrophe in the history of California (after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), and one of the country's biggest civil engineering disasters. (That it is counted as both a "natural" and "engineering" disaster speaks to the likely cause of the dam break: a combination of the geology of the dam site and its one-man engineering team.) The disaster was national news, with some papers printing partial lists of the names of the dead. At the coroner's inquest, Mulholland stated that he wished he were among them. And though he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing—there was no way he could have known the dam was on an ancient landslide, the jury determined—Mulholland retired into seclusion until his death in 1935.
The only standing section of the dam that remained after the fatal collapse. It has since been destroyed for safety reasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

But you'd never know all of this. 87 years later, on the anniversary of the tragedy, most Angelenos have never heard of the St. Francis Dam disaster. Until a couple of years ago, I hadn't. My native Californian father hadn't until he was an adult. We both grew up less than 20 miles from the site.

Over the years, there's been curiously little done on the part of Los Angeles County, or the city, or the LADWP, to memorialize the victims. Except for some blocks of concrete and rebar and the scars of waterlines etched into the canyonside, there is no indication that the dam once massively stood there. There is a small, weathered plaque at a LADWP power station a little ways down the road, which designates the dam site as a California Historical Landmark, but you have to know where to look for it. There is no official memorial park. No major museum exhibits. No field trips for elementary schoolers. There have been songs about the disaster, but you've never heard them the way you've heard "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow." In one day, hundreds of people died for the water that gave the rest of the city life, yet they have no place in the collective memory of Los Angeles.
Looking north on the remains of the dam's abutment, to where the reservoir used to be. (Flickr/Konrad Summers)
Why forget about the St. Francis Dam disaster? It could be a matter of convenience for the city, whose dealings with water acquisitions are already infamously controversial. Or, sort of like New York City's 1904 General Slocum disaster, perhaps there was just too much else going on in the years immediately following the St. Francis Dam break (the Great Depression, World War II, the explosive growth of the city) for officials to put much energy behind it once the coroner's inquest had wrapped up. And then, of course, there was the mythos of Mulholland to protect.

But that could finally be changing. "Things have been swept under rug for so long," says Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Historical Society. "It’s time to properly memorialize the victims properly."

H.R. 5357, the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act, was introduced to Congress last July by former California Representative Buck McKeon, who has since retired. The bill would create a national park around the dam site, an idea that Pollack got from visiting the Pennsylvania's Johnstown Flood National Memorial, where another dam burst catastrophically. Now Pollack and his colleagues are trying to work with Congressman Steve Knight to reintroduce the legislation—"he needs some coaxing along," Pollack says.
Explorers standing on the west side of the dam's remains. (Flickr/Konrad Summers)

Meanwhile, Pollack's busy organizing the various St. Francis-related events that come up this time of year. He's been updating the society's website with the latest local research, planning a bus tour to the site on the 14th, and on March 28th he'll co-host a research symposium featuring J. David Rogers, a forensic civil engineer who's come up with the newest models to explain the dam's collapse.

James Snead, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the nearby California State University, Northridge, is another co-host of the symposium. The story of the Saint Francis Dam came to him a few years ago by accident, during a discussion with a graduate student about the ways disaster is sometimes memorialized and sometimes not. The student brought up St. Francis, but Snead, having lived in L.A. on and off for some 25 years, had never heard of it. He was fascinated by the story, partly for that reason.

"The first thing I had to do was get informed about the disaster," he says, "but no one's ever heard of it! Where do you even begin?"

William Mulholland at the dam site, 3/13/1928.
(Ann Stansell via Facebook)

With his (now former) graduate student Ann Stansell, Snead launched a full-blown research initiative, the Forgotten Casualties Project. While a handful of researchers (like Rogers) have focused on the engineering aspects of the dam over the years, Snead found there'd been little accounting for the human loss. There wasn't even an official list of the dead.

"There were short lists, guess-timates," he says. "There's clearly been an ambivalence with remembering this in a major official way."

Over three years of combing through newspapers, dusty files at an LADWP warehouse, and cemeteries in L.A. County and across the nation, Forgotten Casualties has accounted for 425 deaths—though that's probably not the full scope. Pollack thinks it's more like 431.

Forgotten Casualities has also surveyed the old path of the flood for belongings of the dead. "One of the most poignant things we have is a bedstead," Snead says. "We have no way of knowing who owned it. But looking at this thing somebody owned, maybe was sleeping in, suddenly makes this abstract disaster very personal and real."

Bedstead recovered from San Francisquito Canyon. (James Snead)

Snead says that his research project acts as a kind of neutral forum for those interested in the disaster. He doesn't take sides in how or whether the St. Francis dam should be more officially recognized by one jurisdiction or another. He says he admires Pollack's push for legislation, though he worries that the outcome might actually distance the people who care most about the disaster.

"I’m always concerned that local communities will be disappointed when they get what they ask for," he says. "It would be a great thing to gain recognition, but the cost might be that they'd become somewhat removed from this locality once it's under a certain jurisdiction."

As for the LADWP, spokesperson Albert Rodriguez said they were "unaware of HR 5357, but we will be reviewing it for consideration and stating of our position." And, that "LADWP has never hesitated to acknowledge the tragedy of the Saint Francis dam's failure, and the Department’s responsibility for the deaths and damages." There is also a small exhibit, erected in 2005, on Mulholland in the lobby of the LADWP's downtown headquarters, in which the dam "figures very prominently."

If there's any information on that exhibit on LADWP's website, I've yet to find it. Like the dam itself, you'd have to know the exhibit was there.

For now, anyway. "431 people died in one evening and they’ve never been properly memorialized," says Pollack. "If we could bring the equivalent of a national park to the back yard of the Santa Clarita Valley—that might finally put us on the map."

About the Author

Laura Bliss
Laura Bliss

Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab.

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